Liberty, Current Events

The Moral Imperative of School Choice

In my new Niskanen Center essay, I argue that school choice is a moral imperative. This is so even if school choice produces no boost to educational outcomes. If you value liberty as a policy default and respect parental autonomy, you should support school choice. There’s something for all libertarians to like here, as well as many conservatives, and perhaps even a few progressives.

Published on:
Author: Kevin Vallier
  • On the whole I agree with your piece, but I do have some qualms. You say:

    “We already allow, and think we rightly
    allow, for parents to propagandize and polarize their children at home.
    It’s not clear that school choice would make these problems so much
    worse that it would justify overriding the Liberty and Parental Autonomy

    I think it could make things much worse. If kids get the same ideological viewpoint in school that they get at home they can end up being blinkered and bigoted. In the UK the government encourages faith-based schools and even supports them with public money. One problem we have had is that some Islamic schools were taken over by Muslim fundamentalists who indoctrinated the children, attempting to turn them into closed-minded potential terrorists. The problem has been, or is supposedly being, addressed. But rather than focusing on such extreme cases, an alternative approach would have the government insist that nothing can qualify as a school unless it educates rather than indoctrinates; and education means exposing pupils to alternative views so that they can develop their critical facutlies. This is compatible with school choice; it might, though, mean that many current schools no longer count as schools.

    • King Goat

      I don’t know that I’d trust the government to be able to determine/enforce when a school is indoctrinating v. educating…

      • Yes, the government, or the quango it puts in charge of the matter, can be sure to abuse the power. The choice is between imperfect systems.

        I should have mentioned that there was a similar problem with the catholic schools in Ireland. The clerics were English-hating, Irish nationalists who indoctinated the kids (and abused many of them physically, emotionally and sexually), producing cohorts of potential (and often actual) terrorists.

        • Puppet’s Puppet

          I am not sure how much that was true after Partition. De Valera’s Republic certainly maintained a rather dark and oppressive Catholic nationalism, but it seemed to produce a nation that regarded NI and its problems with a great amount of wariness and detachment (not the least of which was because the irredentists were the official enemies of both governments). I don’t think many terrorists came from there. North of the border, I’d imagine the communal separation in and of itself has more to do with the nurturing of so-called “sectarian” tensions in schools than does their Catholicism per se. The Church has always had a horrible relationship with Republicanism; and Sinn Fein is a bunch of retired Soviet backed murderers turned into the single most militant enemy of Catholic values in all of Northern Ireland. I think if the Unionists dropped their opposition to sectarian schools, and weren’t such assholes generally, or even just honestly campaigned for such votes, they would have a better shot at the increasingly besieged lot of observant Catholics–especially the burgeoning immigrant population. (Most Catholics elsewhere–certainly most American Catholics not of Irish descent, for example–would eagerly vote DUP today if they moved to NI.)

    • carl jacobs

      Education: Teaching a worldview that I like.

      Indoctrination: Teaching a worldview that I don’t like.

      • No. Education means teaching a particular view, explaining what the main rival views are and why the preferred view is preferred. It should also make it clear that the currently preferred view may be replaced by something better in future.

        • carl jacobs

          Preferred by whom? According to what standard of measure? By what authority is that standard derived?

          • Preferred by the teachers, according to standards which they should be able to explain. By no authority. There are no authorities. We are all fallible. Understanding that should be one product of an education.

          • carl jacobs

            There are no authorities.

            That is a curious statement since you said …

            an alternative approach would have the government insist that nothing can qualify as a school unless it educates rather than indoctrinates

            … So someone in authority must be making a judgment regarding the difference. And we know at least two things: Islam & Catholicism don’t pass muster. It’s not just a matter of educator’s preference since both Islamic & Catholic educators can easily explain the standard they prefer. So who is that “someone” and what standard is he applying such that Islam & Catholicism don’t qualify? Where did he procure that standard? Is the standard arbitrary since no authorities exist to establish it? Is it just a matter of government power?

            We are all fallible. Understanding that should be one product of an education.

            But no individual Catholic – educator or not – would claim to be infallible (and, no I am not Catholic). That isn’t really the issue at hand, is it? It’s not about individual fallibility at all. There is a much more essential rejection behind your argument. You object to the infallible claims of the RCC because you reject the very possibility of their existence. As you said, there are no authorities to establish them. So the worldview beneath your argument is perhaps not so invisible as you might hope.

            An officer in the US military has at the very core of his professional identity an apolitical understanding of his service. He serves the nation, the Constitution, and the office. He does not serve the party in power or the man in the office. This understanding does not exist by accident. It is taught into the cadet from the very first moment of his formation. That instruction is not properly described as “teaching a particular view, explaining what the main rival views are and why the preferred view is preferred.” It is properly described as indoctrination and would you really want it otherwise? Do you want military members pondering whether their apolitical oath should really be reconsidered?

            Not everything devolves to preference. Some things must be taught simply because they are good, right, and true. They remain so whether people despise them or not.

          • We were, I assumed, talking about epistemic authorities. There are none
            of those. Knowledge does not derive from authority. It is produced by
            testing. A theory counts as knowledge when it stands up to testing
            better than its available alternatives do. That is the standard I am

            There is no reason in principle why faith schools
            cannot educate. I imagine that some of them do so in the sciences: ‘here
            is what the currently accepted theory says, here are some problems with
            it, here are some rival views.’ Unfortunately, many schools, whether
            faith schools or others, just indoctrinate. My secondary school was a
            shithole in inner London. Not a faith school. In advanced-level applied
            maths we were taught Newton’s theory (amongst other things), but no one
            there told us that the theory was false, that it had been superseded by
            Einstein’s relativity theories, or even that other theories were
            possible. We were indoctrinated. I was shocked when I went to university
            and had my eyes opened.

            Of course, the worry about faith schools
            is that they indoctrinate pupils in their faith. But they could inform
            their pupils about other faiths and, presumably, some of them do. How
            would they defend the claim that their faith is the better one? They
            ought to be able to answer that question. I have no idea what they would
            say (I have never belonged to any faith). So I doubt what you say about
            Islamic and Cathoilc educators being able to explain the standard they
            use to rate rival faiths. Perhaps you mean that each would say that the
            standard is being consistent with his preferred faith; but that is
            circular so not a rational standard.

            I am not sure what you are
            on about in the last part of your message. You seem to think I am some
            kind of subjectivist. As it happens, I am not; and nothing I have said
            should be construed that way. The fact that there are no epistemic
            authorities does not entail that there is no such thing as truth. It
            entails only that no one has an infallble grip on it.

  • DBritt

    “Of course, in the absence of counter evidence, we should expand liberty, as I’ve argued.”

    I would rather say “in the absence of evidence we should seek evidence.” You go on just below to advocate experiments, which is excellent! We are altogether too unwilling to experiment in this realm. But I would make that the top line recommendation. If we want to be consequentialist about this, we should seek to know the consequences first of all! Liberty is but one of those consequences. As you suggest, it may not turn out to be the one that tips the decision depending on how the evidence comes back. Indeed, the correct course of action may be dominated by some other consideration (e.g. segregation, to pick one possibility). What we urgently need is the evidence!

  • Keanan Guillory

    On the “rump” concern,, already lists studies showing improvement in public schools once competition is introduced. And I agree that smaller experiments in choice instead of wholesale utopia-at-once will help absorb these shocks.

  • Sean II

    A much bigger moral imperative: now that we know education is mostly signaling, act on that information & shrink the subsidies poured into it.

    To that extent that school choice makes this even more unlikely than it already is, wr should call it a moral non- or at best a sub-imperative.

    • Puppet’s Puppet

      Damn u hardcore son

      • Sean II

        You know it.

  • Puppet’s Puppet

    The perspective of this essay is a bit odd, arguing so immediately that “If you value liberty and parental autonomy, you should support school choice.” Every parent in the U.S. currently enjoys “school choice”: She may exercise her liberty and parental autonomy to send her child to any privately run school she wishes, or she may choose the free government-operated school in her jurisdiction. Vallier might as well accuse the government of not permitting “cheese choice” because one may consume government cheese as well as purchase any privately made cheese on the market, or “housing choice” because the government operates projects that one may live in as well as choosing to live in any private dwelling. And I’m pretty damn Van Parijisish myself, but even I think this would be a bit much.

    This is not a trivial freedom, incidentally, school choice in this sense. Many countries in the world do force children to be educated by the state and the state alone, and even in this paternalism-happy day and age that strikes most Americans as rather tyrannical. (Similar regimes operate in other areas of personal life, too; for example, Canada actually bans private health coverage as competitors to its socialized medicine.) But that is not what is happening here by any means, and we need more than Vallier gives us to explain why we should should view it as some sort of frontal assault on “liberty and parental autonomy.”

    What we commonly call “school choice” (and I have to thank Vallier for making me think for the first time of the somewhat propagandistic nature of the term) is actually a quite specific approach to this particular aspect of the welfare state: It means liquidizing and personalizing this particular (universal, non-means-tested) government entitlement–not fully, to the point of offering it as cash to be spent however the household best sees fit for the child (or even as a freer voucher good for supplementing a wider variety of childhood needs) combined with the current universal mandate to educate the child according to government standards; but as a voucher good for redeeming at schools alone. Typically, at least at this point in history, the plan is to keep operating the government-run schools as well, in which case the family forfeits the voucher. It’s a bit like maintaining a regime of universal food stamps or universal Section 8 vouchers, plus the option of government cheese and projects.

    That is, we need a rather more ambitious argument here: an argument for why beneficiaries of government aid should be given more flexibility in spending that aid according to the needs they assess for themselves, at least in this particular case. It’s important to note here that there is a certain, very widespread, Joe Sixpack on the street “libertarianism” that tends to argue the reverse (usually for means-tested benefits, which is likely no coincidence): “Hey, I’m all for liberty when it comes to spending the money you earn,” Joe says. “You spend your money however the hell you want. But when you’re spending my money, I want as much ‘paternalism’ as possible. Why, just the other day, a woman ahead of me on line bought a soda and potato chips, then pulled out her EBT card…” It should be noted that libertarian economists of all varieties are unanimous in opining that if there are to be government benefits, the principle that consumer-level consumption judgments are better than government bureaucracy and central planning does not simply magically go out the window once you commit to instituting wealth transfers in your society. (They might consider the original earner to have the “right” to how the money is to be spent, but they consider that battle lost once they concede to the transfer; they are not going to suddenly grow a great respect for the value of the democratic-bureaucratic government decisionmaking process in succeeding in somehow collectively exercising that right. The policy that the taxpayer deserves is the one with good economics.)

    In general, the more thoughtful and principled the lay libertarian, the more likely he is to agree with the economists, but exceptions are rampant; in general, the more foundationally “philosophical,” as opposed to “economic,” the lay’s approach to libertarianism is, the more likely he is to be seduced by the Sixpack line. (Most actual libertarian philosophers, by contrast, tend to be quite “economic” in this sense and generally.) Regardless, every entitlement Sixpack should ask himself why he is so eager to surrender the control he currently exercises over household education entitlements through his local school board, in favor of his tax dollars being used to subsidize a kid’s education God knows where with all say going to the parasitic parent and none to him! Why does he trust, indeed demand, tighter government oversight of the child’s other needs but demand the reverse for education? He may have empirical reasons to treat the cases differently; so be it then, but he should provide them and tone down the righteous rhetoric.

    Again, this attitude, along with Vallier’s oversight, shows how entrenched our “public” attitude is at this point in history toward childhood education. Children surely have other or even more vital needs, such as nourishment and shelter–needs that the government does exercise criminal and custodial paternalism to prevent kids from being deprived of. But only in the case of education have we established this massive, non-means-tested bureaucratically administered government benefit to fulfill this “right of the child,” to the extent that even the most austere of libertarians earnestly and instinctively think of families as being released from some sort of government bondage when they are given the option to spend taxpayer money–not just their own, as they always could–to subsidize privately operated schools. Such is the peculiar state of our present perspective.

    There are, of course, great cases for vouchers, both inside and outside libertarian ideological desiderata; and Vallier is indeed a good read. There is the empirical evidence for private schools, and the well-established general boons of choice and vices of government bureaucracy. There is the fact that the latter tends to be ameliorated by more robust competition, which would be subsidized by this regime. There is the fact that the presence of a free government option really does compromise consumer liberty, though in a much subtler way–for example, the introduction of free government cheese distorts the market and artificially burdens private competitors, adversely affecting consumers; the option to instead spend benefits on private products would go a long way to ameliorating that distortion. So, likewise, would our private school offerings undeniably flourish for all consumers in a way much closer to their “natural” state (no public education) if we at least “offered families a choice.”

    But finally, there are the reasons for being hostile to the very idea of government-administered education, and for viewing the “dismantling of the public school system” as an explicitly good thing. Perhaps we really would be right to be a bit creeped out by the idea of government education of its citizens’ children in general, even if we’re not forced into it. And we are certainly all familiar with the way that reducing the government’s “footprint” relieves us of so many unnecessarily sticky public policy dilemmas. (In this area, fights over dress code, punishment, self-expression, or curriculum ideology for example.) But perhaps the best reason is that government entitlements–regardless of how we think of them ideologically–really are best administered in as flexible and consumer-centered manner as possible.

    • Lacunaria

      Very thorough and thoughtful meander through the issue, Puppet.

      You touch on what I consider to be the fatal conceit of the UBI, which is that it fails to address the fundamental moral dilemma that undergirds welfare while also claiming to replace welfare.

      i.e. the most obvious rebuttal to UBI is, “Well, what happens when someone squanders their money?” Will you then deny them food and shelter and health care because they should have spent their money more wisely?

      It turns out that there is no moral obligation to spread the wealth as the UBI does. In fact, for many who desperately need help, money exacerbates their situation and reinforces their poor choices.

      Most notably, you also touch upon what I consider to be the best guide to practical government: any use of force by government that we find necessary should do its best to match what the free market would be absent the government.

      From that perspective, what free market charity would possibly be based upon just giving people free money? Who would voluntarily give their money to such a charity?

  • stevenjohnson2

    The Parental Autonomy Principle is the Parents’ Property Right Principle, the property in this case being the children. No libertarian who favors the destruction of public education in favor of subsidies to the “market” favors subsidies to youth housing or youth employment that can give them the choice of a non-family life, and they never will. This is an excellent example I think of how libertarian “liberty” is the freedom to take liberties with other people, to a degree commensurate with your wealth, to be sure.

    The Liberty as Default Principle is the Freedom is Being Able to Buy Whatever You Want Principle, aka the Mammon is God Principle. Children acquiring higher culture common to the polity is a step toward their autonomy as adults. Historically private education does not meet this goal for the majority of people, which as near as I can tell is why libertarians resent public education.

    “Even opponents of school choice are unlikely to take this principle to its logical limit, because they don’t seem to be willing to coercively redistribute children from rich schools to poor schools, and they’re generally unwilling to ban private schools and home schools in order to increase the quality of public schools. If you’re really opposed to Rump schools, and you think they’re such a danger that government must interfere, then the forced redistribution of children from good school districts to bad school districts must be on the table.”

    This is a false dichotomy, which is good rhetoric, but poor reasoning. Redistributing students doesn’t abolish the real problem which is inadequate education. Not all educational failures are soluble by expenditures on schools. But redistributing students doesn’t address any of them. The only people I know of who favor bussing students long distances are libertarian conservatives who think reducing taxes by school consolidation is A Good Thing. This argument is really saying that even if Rump schools were a widespread consequence of partially subsidized private schooling, that provision of inferior education to the children left behind is morally justified, because, FREEDOM! I think the true, unspoken argument is that inferior children left to inferior education is market justice.

    (By the way, the sly insinuation that real estate is “highly regulated” disappears the roles of private persons and institutions like banks and real estate developers even as it forgets that cities and counties don’t have the jurisdiction to regulate the way this implies…and that states and the federal government do not do so. Libertarians may think the zoning board is the tail that wags the dog, but this notion remains deeply silly.)

  • I get that this website is now mostly just doing lead-gen for the Niskanen Center, but here’s what a Kevin Vallier post used to look like when he wanted to cross-post in multiple online forums:

    See? A link to the article, a synopsis of the content, some choice excerpts, and explanation of why BHL readers might want to read further.

    I admit my bias, though: Some of us need much, much greater incentive to get clickbaited into reading NC content than others, so maybe it’s just me.

  • John Doe

    More proof that libertarianism is a religion. We should have charter schools even if the evidence doesn’t prove they work? How moronic.

  • CJColucci

    If A, then A. A, therefore A.